Monday, November 24, 2014

A Fight over Who Gets the Martyr's Relics

By Kim Rendfeld

St. Boniface would have never wanted the dispute that followed his martyrdom in 754. Two of his disciples, Sts. Lull and Sturm, wanted his remains.

The stakes were high. Martyr’s relics were attributed with miraculous powers, and churches that housed them attracted pilgrims and their alms.

Lull, the Wessex-born archbishop of Mainz, and Sturm, the Bavarian-born founding abbot of Fulda, had been close to the martyr.

The 11th century Sacramentary of Fulda
shows Boniface baptizing
converts and being martyred.
Sturm and Boniface had met in Bavaria when Sturm was a boy. With his parents' permission, Sturm traveled with Boniface to Fritzlar, where he was left in the care of that abbot and became a priest in the 730s. At Boniface's urging, Sturm spent nine years in the wilderness, seeking the perfect site for a new monastery. Boniface then persuaded the Frankish mayor of the palace to donate the land and blessed the site for Fulda in 744.

Lull had met Boniface, also a native of Wessex, in the 730s while Lull was on a pilgrimage to Rome. Lull had been a monk at Malmesbury but was persuaded to join the monastery at Fritzlar, which Boniface had founded. Boniface must have been impressed with Lull. He consecrated him as a bishop about 753 and later chose Lull as his successor as the archbishop of Mainz. Boniface went out of his way for Lull to be accepted and even wrote to Fulrad, the influential abbot of St. Dennis, to convince Pepin to look favorably on Lull’s new position.

Boniface left the safety of Mainz for the dangerous mission to Frisia, where pagans slaughtered him and his companions. If we are to believe Eigil, Sturm's hagiographer, Boniface weighed in a couple of times on where his body should rest. As always, I leave to the reader to decide the veracity.

When Boniface and his slain followers were taken to Utrecht, the companions' bodies were buried, but the locals were unable to lift Boniface's bier. They took that as a sign to send the martyr elsewhere. Once they made that realization, the body was easily moved and loaded onto a boat that went to Mainz.

At Mainz, Lull claimed the relics for his city, but Sturm had rushed there and argued that Boniface had said during his life that he wanted to be entombed at Fulda. The two places were very different. At the time, Mainz was almost 800 years old, dating back to the Romans. Fulda was only 10 years old, founded in the middle of nowhere.

Boniface again stepped in. Appearing in a deacon's dream, he asked why his journey to Fulda was delayed. Lull refused to believe it until the deacon swore on the altar.

So Boniface was taken to Fulda, and the monastery thrived.

Lull gave up the fight on the relics, but he retaliated. Three of his supporters told Frankish King Pepin that Sturm was disloyal. The abbot of Fulda didn't defend himself, saying he would put his trust in God.

Sturm and some companions were exiled for two years to the abbey of Jumièges and treated well, but the monks at Fulda were unhappy, especially with their abbey now under Lull's jurisdiction. When they rejected the abbot he appointed, the archbishop conceded and let them choose one of their own. They did so with the sole purpose of bringing Sturm home. Soon monks, along with nuns at convents and the faithful at other churches, were praying.

Boniface’s tomb at Fulda.
The prayers worked. Pepin summoned Sturm and said he had forgotten what they were quarreling over. When Sturm affirmed his loyalty, he returned to Fulda, which was no longer under Lull’s authority, and oversaw construction and decorated Boniface's tomb.

The relics were the monastery’s greatest treasure. They were so valued that when the monks feared an attack from pagan Saxons in 778, they removed the relics and fled to the forest. After three days in tents, they got word that the locals had fended off the attack and it was safe to return.

Perhaps, Boniface would have been heartened by what Sturm said on his deathbed in 779. “Pray to God for me,” he said to his brothers, “and if I have committed any fault among you through human frailty or wronged anyone unjustly, forgive me as I also forgive all those who have offended or wronged me, including Lull, who always took sides against me.”

Public domain images via Wikimedia Commons


Eigil’s Life of Sturm

Athelstan Museum

Francis Mershman, "St. Boniface," The Catholic Encyclopedia

Rev. Alban Butler, The Lives of the Saints

Joseph Lins, "Mainz," The Catholic Encyclopedia


Sturm makes a brief appearance in Kim Rendfeld’s latest release, The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar (2014, Fireship Press), a story of a Saxon mother and the lengths she will go to protect her children.

To read the first chapters of Ashes or Kim’s debut, The Cross and the Dragon (2012, Fireship Press), or learn more about her, visit or her blog Outtakes of a Historical Novelist at You can also like her on Facebook at, follow her on Twitter at @kimrendfeld, or contact her at kim [at] kimrendfeld [dot] com.

Kim's book are available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other retailers.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Giveaway: Pasha by Julian Stockwin

Julian is giving away two copies of Pasha to winners worldwide. You can read about the book HERE. Please comment below to enter the drawing, and be sure to leave your contact information.

The Thames: England’s Liquid History

by Julian Stockwin

Customs House
My particular interest in the River Thames is its role in the Georgian age. London at the turn of the eighteenth century was much smaller than it is now of course. Upstream of Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament were green fields and the country, while downstream the great city spread out, mostly on the left side. The river did a single bend to the right, and on the way was Whitehall, the Bank of England, St Paul's. Then it was the Tower of London, and before the Thames had time for another wiggle it was all over, green fields again.

The Port of London
But the real heart of London, its real reason for being there, was the Port of London. This was the biggest in the world at the time, a wonder of the age. It was the undisputed centre for handling cargoes to and from all over the newly explored world. If you were to stand on London Bridge looking downstream you’d see the most amazing sight. In a space of water not a couple of hundred yards across was crammed a great mass of shipping – snows, galliots, hermaphrodite barques, cats, tilt boats; every conceivable type under every kind of flag. There were 8000 ship movements in and out of port in 1793, these increased to 16,000 by 1824, all in this one part of the river. One great forest of masts. From big ocean going East Indiamen to colliers from the north, they all rafted up together, for there were no quays to come alongside. The ships would tie up to each other, and lighters would come out to load or take out the cargo.

The Port of London was not all that big, in fact the whole thing was really concentrated at the point which was as far up the Thames as big ships could go. This was the impassable barrier of London Bridge (that’s the one next up from present day Tower Bridge). And here they all arrived, handily right in the centre of the capital. The Port of London is a stretch of river from London Bridge a couple of miles down river to the first bend. The ships would have to make their way up from Tilbury at the mouth about 25 miles upstream and through a dozen sweeping bends, crammed with other ships all moving in either direction and with fluky winds. Most were square riggers which could only keep within six points of the wind – a tough sail. A foul wind could hold up arrivals for weeks, and the Bank of England fitted a special wind dial indicator in the main dealing room so bankers could tell at a glance whether a sighted vessel would make it to London in time to land cargo to meet the terms of a Bill of Exchange. It’s still there to this day.

London and the Thames were, right up until the middle of the twentieth century, totally mutually dependent. It was the port in Britain to action the economic basis for the coming Industrial Revolution. But in the Georgian era it was more – we’re used to taxis, buses, trains and so on. In the eighteenth century you thought long and hard about even the smallest journey, and in London that meant sedan chair or slow stage coach or carriage through muddy streets and appalling traffic jams. The only practical method was by river, and this was the main highway of the time.

There were many other maritime features—the great marine observatories at Greenwich, the gun foundry at Woolwich Arsenal which is still occupied by the Ministry of Defence, and Henry VIII’s Trinity House which looked after buoys and lighthouses and still does to this day, and there were shipbuilders up and down the river. At Blackwall many famous frigates were built for the French wars. Rotherhithe, Deptford, was known for king’s ships since Shakespeare’s day. The radically designed HMS Warrior, now on show in Portsmouth, was a Thames vessel.

Support for these ships had to be on an industrial scale. If you think of the kind of stores a single ship had to load for a voyage of over a year to far places, you get an idea of what was needed - multiplied by 1000s of ships. Breweries to make the small beer that was taken instead of water, ship’s biscuits, the hard tack – the list goes on and on. There were skilled men everywhere – such as coopers making great casks who were there on dockside right up to the 1960s. The men who manned the lighters or barges, the lightermen, were also very skilled, steering with 20 foot long oars they could bring a lighter from the ship to the wharf by tide power alone.

River Scene

But the real professionals, and it took a full seven year apprenticeship, were the river taxi drivers, the watermen. In the eighteenth century they would gather their red or green wherries (a sharp bowed skiff) around one of the many ‘stairs’ or boarding points, like Horseferry stairs, Puddle dock, King’s stairs. A passenger would approach and they’d shout ‘oars, oars’. The passenger would point at one, and the others would turn on the lucky one and abuse him loudly. They were very independent, often garrulous, uncouth and arrogant, happily screeching insults at passing rivals, but they were very good at what they did, especially at ‘shooting the bridge’ which was what they called passing through London Bridge. This was like a weir, so fast were the tides. Passengers could get their money back if they were tipped into the river, or they could prudently take precautions, landing before the bridge and boarding again after. The oldest sporting event in the world is the Doggetts coat and badge race for first year watermen and runs to this day. In fact there are still watermen, and one of their privileges is delivering the Royal Crown from the Tower of London to Westminster at the state opening of parliament. If the Thames froze, a Frost Fair would be held on the ice. Gentlemen and their ladies would stroll arm in arm, there’d be plenty of entertainment, with bear baiting, an ox roast, cricket match and so on, all on the ice. The watermen couldn’t ply for hire, so they had races in which their boats were hauled over the ice by horses.

The Thames was smelly then but actually not as much as later – people were still catching salmon in the City in 1800. In the eighteenth century the practice was for night soil men to take away the liquid waste for industrial uses, and the other for manure, it was just too valuable to throw away. It wasn’t until the huge explosion of population in Victorian times coinciding with the invention of the flush toilet that the stinks and health hazards really came. In 1800 for drinking water they still relied on a big waterwheel next to London Bridge to pump up water direct from the Thames.

The river would smell rank, but this would be overlaid by other fragrances. Writers of the time use the word ‘spicy’ a lot, the scent of cargoes – cinnabar, ginger, tea, sandalwood, hemp – and of course the unmistakable rich whiff of sea worn ropes and tar. Downstream there were other smells. The ink and dye works at Deptford had very pungent copper salts, and Berger paints were nearby. The worst were the leather tanneries around Bermondsey – 30 of them! They started a vinegar factory in the middle with the idea of countering one smell with another, and miraculously, it was still going in 1991. Around the bend in the river are the Greenland docks. This was well into the country, for there the whalers used to return and the oil was processed. This caused a stink so bad that people choked. But back in the city the main smell was that of horses and their dung – uncountable thousands of horses. And the sea coal – you could see where London was from the Downs because of the big brown cloud hanging over it from the sea coal fires.

When a sailor returned after a voyage he’d be on the ran tan ashore just as fast as he could. The main area was Wapping, roughly from where the Tower of London is until the river bends. It was a maze of tiny streets and alleys, with names like Cat’s Hole, Shovel Alley, the Rookery, Dark Entry and so on. A wider road called Ratcliffe Highway ran through it, lined with shops, taverns, ship’s chandlers, doss houses and so on. It still exists, now called simply ‘The Highway.’

Every shop had a sailor’s lodgings above it and every kind of sharp practice was used to part the sailor from his hard earned silver. Across the river in Southwark and Rotherhithe it was the same, and we know from Chaucer that it has a pretty long history. There are still some of the old pubs – the Prospect Of Whitby in Wapping, a fine old place, the Town Of Ramsgate in Rotherhithethese - were named after ships that regularly tied up outside. The Grapes in Limehouse gets a mention in Dickens and the Mayflower pub stands on the spot where the Pilgrim fathers sailed for America.

Thames sailing barges with their distinctive sails
It’s thought that in the eighteenth century between a quarter and a third of all cargoes arriving were stolen. It varied a lot in seriousness. At one end of the scale their would be scams such as a fake agent meeting a ship and bargaining with the captain to ease the task of landing his cargo, organising lighters, customs clearance, porters and so on. The captain would agree and the cargo would be landed alright – but that would be the last he saw of it. At the other end of the scale were the mudlarks or scuffle hunters. These were young scamps who would skip aboard a vessel working cargo and suddenly throw something overboard before escaping. This article they could then retrieve from the mud later when the tide went out. River pirates were a real menace, so when they were caught they paid the penalty – and then their bodies were hung in chains in Execution dock until their skeletons had disarticulated. You can still see the sea wall near St Katherine’s dock.

The docks changed the face of the Thames. We think today of the Pool of London and the endless docks, but before the Napoleonic wars there was not even one! Then in 1802, and only to combat the thieving of cargo, out in the country the West India dock was built, with high walls and controlled security. Ships would come to a stop outside, lower their sails, and then be pulled inside by powerful land capstans. It was an instant success, and other docks were quickly dug. This brought more support services and soon London had doubled in size, and only just in time, for the number of ship movements would double as well in just 22 years.

Canaletto's painting of the Lord Mayor's Procession


Julian Stockwin was sent at the age of fourteen to Indefatigable, a tough sea-training school. He joined the Royal Navy at fifteen before transferring to the Royal Australian Navy, where he served in the Far East, Antarctic waters and the South Seas. In Vietnam he saw active service in a carrier task force. After leaving the Navy Julian attended university; he became a teacher and later practised as an educational psychologist. Julian lived for some time in Hong Kong, where he was commissioned into the Royal Naval Reserve. He was awarded the MBE and retired with the rank of Lieutenant Commander. He now lives in Devon with his wife and literary partner Kathy. More information can be found on his website. Julian also posts his own blog, BigJules and is on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.

He has written fifteen books to date in his Thomas Kydd historical action adventure fiction series. Although they form a series each title can be read as a stand-alone novel. The titles, in order are Kydd, Artemis, Seaflower, Mutiny, Quarterdeck, Tenacious, Command, The Admiral's Daughter, Treachery (published in the US as The Privateer's Revenge), Invasion, Victory, Conquest, Betrayal, Caribee and Pasha. Julian has also written a non-fiction book, Stockwin's Maritime Miscellany.
And in a departure from the ongoing adventures of Kydd and Renzi, this year Julian’s also brought out a standalone historical novel set in the time of Justinian, The Silk Tree.

Please see the Giveaway page to enter a drawing for a copy of Pasha.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Robin Hood – A Short Guide

by Steven A. McKay

Like King Arthur, Robin Hood seems to hold a special place in the hearts of all sorts of people. There’s something very romantic about a downtrodden normal man rising up and thumbing his nose at society’s corrupt rulers. Hundreds of years after the first stories of Robin were told, we can still identify with the concept – some things just don’t change…

No one is quite sure when Hood might have lived, with most authors following Sir Walter Scott’s lead in Ivanhoe and placing him around 1194 and the time of King Richard, although the original tales mention King Edward which would push the time-frame back a century or so depending on which Edward they meant.

There’s also some question over the religious aspects of the character – was he an extension of a pagan figure like John Barleycorn, Cernunnos or Herne the Hunter? Or was he simply a devout Christian as the early ballads suggest? The people of the middle-ages were certainly Christian, as the Crusades so violently testify, but they also held to some of the “old ways” – could a real man have taken on some of these pagan aspects and become the mythical figure we know today?

The Green Man represents nature and the seasons – more specifically the cycle of life, death and the rebirth in spring. John Barleycorn is similar, although he stands for autumn and the barley crop which would be used to make beer. It's obvious this kind of archetype – of a symbolic figure that brings life (and beer!) to the common man while triumphing over the oppressive, killing cold of winter – fits nicely with the myth of Robin Hood. Indeed, in my own Wolf's Head Robin brings ale, food and money to the starving people of Wakefield, foiling the ever-present medieval spectre of an early death.

Of course, the bold outlaw has been portrayed countless times in TV shows and movies – the hugely popular “Prince of Thieves” and Richard Carpenter’s wonderful fantasy-tinged “Robin of Sherwood” probably being the pick of the bunch, but the popularity of the recent BBC series and the Russell Crowe movie proves again how audiences continue to connect with the legend.

In novel form Robin hasn’t fared quite as well as the ever-popular King Arthur, who was, of course, immortalized in fantastic books by Bernard Cornwell and Marion Zimmer Bradley among others. Angus Donald has taken a refreshingly new look at the character in his successful Outlaw Chronicles, making Hood something of a medieval gangster, although the books are still set around the 13th century. David Pilling, Prue Batten and Parke Godwin are others who have explored the legend although I haven't got around to reading them yet, simply because I don't want to be accused of stealing ideas!

For my own novel Wolf’s Head I chose to follow the very first, original ballads by placing the action in Yorkshire, rather than Nottingham, and in the early 14th century. All the old characters are still there though, with the much-maligned sheriff doing his best to bring the “merry men” to justice. The second in the series, The Wolf and the Raven also sees the introduction/return of Sir Guy of Gisbourne...

There are, of course, lots of other ideas and theories around Robin Hood. Was he really William Wallace? Was he a Templar knight as suggested by John Paul Davis in The Unknown Templar? Or the Earl of Huntingdon, rather than the yeoman of the early ballads? Did he really use a longbow or did that only come into use after Robin lived?

We’ll probably never know the answers to these questions, and that’s the great thing about Robin, Little John and Will Scarlet, just as it is with King Arthur and Merlin: we can allow our imaginations to fill in the blanks, knowing no one interpretation will ever be “right” or “wrong”. For me, there was a real man – or more likely men – that the Robin Hood legend was based on, over a period of decades. Hard men – probably violent criminals that weren't very heroic at all. But their exploits – stealing from the obscenely wealthy while evading the unpopular ruling class – brought cheer to the downtrodden peasants and commoners of the medieval period. The tales grew in the telling to include elements of heroism, paganism and romance until, eventually, Hood became a symbol for justice and, perhaps most importantly, hope.

But that's just how I see it. How do you picture the legendary wolf's head and his band of men? In the end, that's all that matters!


Steven A. McKay is the author of the Amazon "War" chart number 1's Wolf's Head and The Wolf and the Raven. The third in the series, Rise of the Wolf, is underway, while a spin-off novella, Knight of the Cross, has just been released.
To find out more go to StevenAMcKay, Amazon UK, or Amazon US

Friday, November 21, 2014

Jockies, Marshals and Knights

by Sue Millard

Horse power

If there is one facet of human endeavour that we cannot get away from as historians, it is people’s need to travel, and for many millennia their most rapid means of transport was the horse. 

Just as there were names for the types of horses and the jobs they were suited to, there were names for the people who used and worked with horses. Let’s have a look at some of them.

Smiths, Farriers and Marshals


The original sense of this word was apparently a craftsman, a skilled worker, not only in in metal but in wood or other material. Its origins lie in Common Germanic and Old English. In the Lindisfarne Gospel c 950AD, Matthew xiii. 55 has a gloss (translation between the lines) of Ah ne ðis is smiðes vel wyrihta sunu? (Is not this the carpenter’s or wright's son?)

By ~1300 the term "smith" had moved towards metalwork, eg in the Cursor MundiAls it war dintes on a steþi Þat smythes smittes in a smeþey. (As it were strokes on an anvil, that smiths smite in a smithy.) Although the alliteration is there for the sake of the poetry, it also gives us the clue that a smith is one who smites, who uses a hammer.

Smiths could also specialise in their own particular metals. Goldsmiths and silversmiths were recorded in around 1000AD and coppersmiths in the early 1300s, but tinsmiths (whitesmiths) not until the 19th century.

Black-smiths were workers of iron, and their trade included the making and mending of agricultural equipment, tools, and weapons. The 1248 Close Rolls of Henry III mention “Master Henry the Blacksmith”. They did not exclusively shoe horses, though no doubt every village blacksmith would provide this service simply because all local work and all passing trade was either on foot or on horseback.


A farrier, on the other hand, was entirely geared towards the care of horses and their shoeing. The old Latin term ferrārius was taken into Old French where it became ferrier, from the Latin for ferrum, iron.  In medieval Latin ferrum (often ferrus) meant a horseshoe. The Oxford English Dictionary surprised me here because I had thought the term might have been imported to England during the Norman period, but their first record of it is in 1562 in an Act of Queen Elizabeth I, where the farrier is defined alongside the blacksmith, as working in a parallel trade. 

The farrier was also the horse doctor: F. Markham, 1622: Five Decades Epist. of Warre  v. ii. §6An excellent Smith or Farryer who shall euer be furnished with Horse~shooes, nayles, and drugges, both for inward and outward applycations.


In fact, the Anglo-Norman word for a shoeing smith was not farrier but marshal, from marescal. It is much older than farrier, and in fact in 1086 it was recorded in the Domesday Book as a surname. At first it meant simply a person responsible for the upkeep of horses, especially their feet – the company’s mechanic, if you like – but by degrees, from its responsibility, it acquired other meanings, such as a high officer within a royal household. By 1213 it had become the term for a commander of cavalry in an army, and it has retained its military sense up to the present day.

Pages, Squires and Knights


In Anglo-Norman and Old French a page was a young male servant (c1225), a boy or  a youth generally of noble birth, who was attached to the service of a person of high rank (second half of the 14th cent.) His duties were domestic rather than warlike.


A squire was a young man of good birth attendant upon a knight, helping him to dress and put on armour. When they travelled or went to war, he led his master’s war horse, himself riding a rouncy (cob) and leading the destrier on his right while the knight rode a more comfortable and less aggressive palfrey.  Beket, in
The South English Legendary, c1300–1325 wrote:  For-to honouri þis holi man þer cam folk i-novȝ;..Of Eorles and of barones and manie kniȝtes… and of squiers. (People came to honour this holy man – earls and barons and many knights and squires.)

The spellings of this word can be very inventive, anything from skuyeris to swyers!


The Old English / Middle English cniht has links with the continental word knecht which has connotations of “young man” or “lad” – a servant, or someone active and fit to be a soldier. 1086,   Þænne wæron mid him ealle þa rice men..abbodas & eorlas, þegnas & cnihtas. (Then were with him all the rich men, abbots and earls, thegns and knights.)  

Knight – like the modern southern English colloquial use of “squire” – could also be extended to address a man, especially a male servant, of any age. This familiar usage existed alongside the better-known medieval feudal meaning, of a military man who served a king. A knight had gone through degrees of service, being first a page and then a squire, until he “won his spurs” as an acknowledged man of rank. The link with horses here is simply that the knight, being a military officer, needed fighting transport, and he relied on his squire to look after it.


Compared to all these ancient words, jockey, the quintessential horse term for a race-rider, is relatively modern, being recorded first in the early 16th C as iocky and in Shakespeare’s Richard III as iockey. 

I have seen assertions that it refers to 'Eachaidhe' in Gaelic, the word meaning “horsemen”, and pronounced yachey. However, there were much older Gaelic terms meaning horse – capall, rois (hros) and marc. And it seems unlikely that the language of an underclass (Irish or Scottish Gaels) would influence the language of an aristocracy who could afford to buy and keep horses solely for racing.

“Jocky” or “jockey” is more likely to be (as the OED states) John or Jack or Jacky: lowly people, serving boys; a term for  the “boy”, “the johnnie” or “the lad” who looks after the stable and other menial tasks, who is light and agile enough to be given the ride on the racehorses. We still hear an echo of this meaning in upper middle class phrases for a workman or employee, like “that window-cleaner johnnie”. It’s much like “a lad” in racing parlance, who is anyone who looks after racehorses – young or old, male or female, they are “lads” and only occasionally “lasses”!

The references in this article are culled from the pages of the Oxford English Dictionary.


Sue Millard, in her pursuit of all things historical and equine, manages the Fell Pony and Countryside Museums web site,  Her book web site is Jackdaw E Books 

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Cutting Through a Medieval Notion or Two

by Scott Howard

To those with  a jaded view of history, the Middle Ages was a dark period, seething with swarms of brutish thugs, toothless peasants resembling a human shaped piece of mud, and nobles living lavishly while villages burned.  Books and movies have overplayed this notion, thus depriving the world of the learning and reforms that sprang forth from this period.  Looking at something as simple as a sword can uncover our eyes and show us new worlds that we may have overlooked - worlds we didn't like, because we didn't understand them.   

Indeed, history has chronicled baseless acts and the ruling class thumbed their nose, or wrinkled it in distaste, at those beneath them, but the fact that, we, as modern people, could trace our past to the "lower classes" should say something about their character, their skills, and determination to pass on whatever legacy they possessed to the next generation.

Modern metallurgy has come a long way.  The medieval blacksmith was a part time brute hired by the local baron to produce arms and armor and completely void of skill, right?  The swords and arms they produced were lucky to survive a melee or a season of campaigns.  They were simpletons who could only dream of producing a sword with triple fullers, tapered blade, leather wrapped grip, fishtail pommel, and a crossguard that resembles a ribbon.  The physical balance of the sword that only modern science could produce mustn't be overlooked.

KHM Wien A 141 - Ceremonial sword of the Rector of the Republic of Ragusa, 1466
Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

These notions beg a few questions, though.  Are museum pieces such as the Ceremonial sword of the Rector of the Republic of Ragusa, (1468) mere flukes that they lasted for so long?  Or were medieval blacksmiths expert craftsmen whose reputations went alongside a lord and his retainers during the campaign season?  Were they more modern than thought?

Judging by the sheer volume of swords used during the Crusades and sundry great battles of the Middle Ages appearing in photos of personal and museum collections, the evidence clearly points to the latter.  It is astounding to see how closely modern replicas mirror their medieval predecessors and how well preserved the small details are - visible fullers, etchings and designs on the blades, the intricacies of the pommels, the variety of crossguard shapes and sizes, and even remnants of leather grips.

Space does not allow for the breadth of information on forging blades, the grinding process, and how, even in the mire of what we call the Middle Ages, there were skilled artisans and specialists that knew what would stand the test of time.  An intimate knowledge of the crystalline structure of steel was unknown, but centuries of craft passed through the generations more than made up for that lack.  

Moreover, there were strong guilds that ensured a level of quality concerning any product a blacksmith would produce.  In addition to arms and armaments, they repaired or made tools, farm implements, and sundry other products that were not a mere cobbling together of steel and luck.  If that were the case you would never be able to balance a close replica of a typical medieval sword in one hand for any length of time, nor would you be able to twirl it, toss it, or survive for a day in the life of a medieval knight.  

For more information and ingenious ways of forging and grinding quality sword steel, follow the link here.  To experience a daily dose of medieval and replica pieces, whose existence points to something other than preconceived notions of knowledge and skill, follow the link here.

~ Scott Howard Higginbotham
A Soul’s Ransom

Scott Higginbotham writes under the name Scott Howard and is the author of A Soul’s Ransom, a novel set in the fourteenth century where William de Courtenay’s mettle is tested, weighed, and refined, and For a Thousand Generations where Edward Leaver navigates a world where his purpose is defined with an eye to the future.  His new release, A Matter of Honor, is a direct sequel to For a Thousand Generations.  It is within Edward Leaver's well-worn boots that Scott travels the muddy tracks of medieval England.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

After the Castle Fell: The Second Life of Marie Flemying: 1573-1598

by Linda Root

Marie Flemying, from a drawing by the  author

I did not set out to stumble upon a grand love affair
when I began to write The First Marie and the Queen of Scots.  I selected Marie Flemying as my protagonist because she was Marie Stuart’s cousin and was the chief of the queen’s celebrated Four Maries, the little girls who accompanied the queen to France in 1548.

Because of their shared heritage and life experiences, I felt there was potential in a book written from her point of view.  I knew nothing about the petite little blond when I began. But Marie Flemyng was a usurper. Almost by accident, the First Marie became more her story than the queen’s.  But this post is not about the great romance between the queen’s flamboyant cousin or the man Elizabeth called "the flower of the wit of Scotland." It concerns what happened when he died.

But first, the love story...

William Maitland of Lethington was Marie Stuart’s foreign secretary and a frequent visitor to the Tudor Court.  He had similarly served her mother Marie de Guise when she was the Scottish Regent. The Regent had sent him to France to conclude negotiations of the Treaty of Cateau-Cambresis in which Scotland was a minor player.  Almost half of the original group of Scottish representatives to Marie Stuart’s wedding to the Dauphin, Francois, including Marie Flemyng’s older brother Lord Flemyng, Chancellor of Scotland died  on the eve of their return to Scotland the year before.  Maitland and Lord Fleming were part of the same group of religious moderates who often dined together. Also, the family of the Earl of Casillas who also died had secretly retained Maitland to investigate the deaths while he was in France. Maitland almost certainly met Marie Flemying during his visit.

From The First Marie, character sketches by Linda Root

When the Queen of Scots, consort of the frail French King Francois II, found herself a widow two years later, her Four Maries including Marie Flemying accompanied her to the homeland they had not seen in thirteen years.  By 1564, recent widower Maitland and the much younger chief of The Four Maries were already an item. The Scottish knight Calvinist Sir William Kirkcaldy remarked to one of his English friends Maitland was as likely a suitor for Marie Flemying as Kirkcaldy was to be Pope. Their May-September romance was put on hold due to Maitland’s opposition to the Darnley marriage and the queen’s suspicions he had been involved in the murder of her Italian favorite, her correspondence secretary David Rizzio, but by early fall of 1566, Maitland and the Queen had reconciled.

The month after the christening of Prince Charles James Stuart, best known to history as James VI and I, Maitland and the pretty blonde granddaughter of James IV were married on January 5, 1567 at Stirling as a part of the Twelfth Night celebrations. Their honeymoon was short.

The following month the Queen’s husband Darnley was murdered, and the Queen was suspected of having had a part in it.  Almost certainly Maitland had been involved.  But when the Queen fell under the thrall of Maitland’s personal enemy, Scotland’s notorious bad boy James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell, the halcyon days abruptly ended.

By the following summer, Maitland was in league with the rebels who marched against the Queen.  What strain his defection put on his marriage is a matter of speculation.  In any event, the middle-aged bridegroom fought under the banner of the newly crowned infant King James VI at Langside on the eve of Marie Stuart’s ill-conceived flight to England, and he went to York as a part of the Scottish contingent appearing at the tribunal Elizabeth Tudor convened to determine the equities surrounding her cousin's forced abdication while imprisoned at Loch Leven during 1567-68. By the time the tribunal met, Maitland was acting as a double agent, informing the incarcerated Queen’s counsel of the evidence against her and secretly meeting with the Duke of Norfolk in hopes of negotiating a marriage that would result in Marie Stuart's  restoration to the Scottish throne with Norfolk as her consort.

At the time of Maitland’s trip to England, he was already showing signs of a debilitating degenerative disease that soon left him crippled. During his absence, his wife gave birth to their second child.

Soon after his return, Maitland of Lethington  joined a cabal of increasingly powerful aristocratic Scots who regretted their betrayal of the Queen of Scots, and by the end of the decade he had joined Sir William Kirkcaldy of Grange in open protest of her treatment.  During the ensuing Douglas Wars, he and his lady  joined the Castilian faction which championed the cause of the Queen of Scots and held Edinburgh Castle in her name.  Then in 1573, the Regent James Douglas, Earl of Morton, talked Elizabeth Tudor into sending her siege guns to Scotland to level it.

Wikimedia Commons, ((PD-Art))

In early summer the castle fell to an English army. While Maitland was still in English custody pending his release to the bloodthirsty Scottish Regent James Douglas, Earl of Morton, the great Maitland died in the prison infirmary at the Tollbooth in Leith, many said in the manner of Socrates. Rumor mongers including his brother John Maitland, Prior of Coldingham (later, Lord Thirlstane) hinted that poison had been administered by his wife.

In The First Marie the poison vial 
was sent to Lady Lethington by 
Elizabeth  to spare her friend 
Maitland a traitor's death.
Some historical references suggest the Lethington marriage was an unhappy one, but I have not found a single piece of credible evidence to support it. The last widely reported reference to Marie Flemying in the popular histories presents a contrary view. In a letter she wrote to Elizabeth’s Minister William Cecil to protest Morton’s plan to try Maitland’s corpse for treason, she makes an impassioned plea for the release of his remains, which had been left under guard  and infested by vermin, rotting at their house in the Meal Market.  Elizabeth sided with the widow and in no uncertain terms informed Morton that her old friend died while unconvicted of any crime, and besides, in England, they reserved hanging and dismemberment for the living.

In the same timeframe, Lady Lethington wrote to her sister-in-law Isabel complaining of Coldingham’s slanders and neglect of her and her children. If one were to succumb to casual historical research, Marie Flemyng’s story would end with the second letter, for at this point she disappears from popular histories. Some go so far as to declare she never remarried and raised her children in relative poverty.

The Second Life of the First Marie (1573 – circa 1599)

Marie Flemying’s appearances in the historical records of the Scottish courts do not end with Maitland’s death. What followed thereafter may have lacked the luster and romance of her love affair with Maitland, but her story does not end for approximately another twenty-five years. Although her date of death is uncertain, she  out-lived her mortal enemy Morton who was executed in 1583 by close to fifteen years and her brother-in-law John Maitland, Lord Thirlestane, for three.

Morton's execution by the device known as the
Maiden, a precursor of the guillotine. 
There is no mention of the fate of the First Marie until ten years after Maitland’s death when the imprisoned Queen of Scots requested her ambassador in France to seek passports from Elizabeth allowing Lady Lethington and one of the Setons to travel to England for a visit which the Queen of Scots thought might be beneficial to her declining health.

There is no record that the passports were issued, and if so, whether either of them came. Records of the Queen’s expenditures suggest they did not. If Marie Flemying made the trip, she did not stay long. There is a compelling explanation as to why. She was about to remarry.

A fictional last visit between Marie Suart
and her cousin Marie Flemyng
By 1584, Marie Flemyng was Lady Fyvie, the wife of George Meldrum whose family owned one of the most impressive castles in Aberdeenshire. Unfortunately what at first blush seems to be a reversal of her fall from grace did not long endure.  Notations in the public records always treated  her with respect, but her bridegroom was not so fortunate.

There is no reason the Meldrum marriage should be so frequently overlooked by popular historians. Both parties were well known.  Secretary Maitland’s widow was a legendary beauty, and for many Scots the Queen of Scots and her Four Maries had become  the personifications of happier times. The Meldrums were important Aberdeenshire aristocrats with strong ties to the English aristocracy, although the politics of the Sixteenth Century had not always treated them kindly.

Marie Flemyng and her new suitor shared one thing in common—both of their ancestors had spent time at the Tudor Court during the reign of Henry VIII.  The earlier George Meldrum was present at Henry Tudor’s Death Watch. In the political  climate of 1584 when the independent and maturing King James VI was beginning to look south to his future, his cousin Marie Flemyng should have been a welcome visitor at the Stuart Court, although there is no mention of her.  The reason was likely financial. She may not have had the money to maintain a proper court appearance.  It was not Marie Flemying who brought her family to the brink of bankruptcy. It was her aristocratic new husband George.

The allegedly haunted Castle Fyvie (Wikimedia Commons)

Researching the relationship between Marie Fleming and George Meldrum awakens caution in anyone using genealogical sites for historical references.  Some of them show Meldrum as Marie Fleming’s first husband, an inexcusable error considering the high visibility of her life in France and the rumors surrounding her romance with Maitland. It vexes that so many novices are presenting charts and family trees of famous people from the past without a modicum of independent research or employment of their common sense.  The George Meldrum mentioned in these sites as having married Marie Flemying was at Henry Tudor’s deathbed when Marie was on a ship to France with her cousin when the two girls were barely six. The George Meldrum she married was his grandson.

While there is some confusion as to whether the George in our story inherited the title from his father or an older brother; apparently one of the intervening barons of Fyvie suffered from mental illness that required expensive care. He  also made some financially disastrous moves before his  potential heirs realized he was going mad. Marie Flemyng’s new bridegroom acquired the title and estates in a much beleaguered state and seemingly lacked the financial acumen to remedy the decline.

It is primarily through civil actions brought by her  husband's creditors to collect debts incurred by his predecessor that we trace the later years of Marie Fleming. One has to dig deeply to find anything further about the Meldrums after George was forced to transfer the title of his barony to one of his kinsman who within months sold it to the Setons.

By the end of 1596, Alexander Seton was in possession of Fyvie Castle and soon thereafter title to the barony was conferred upon him by his friend the King. At the time, Marie Flemying was apparently ill and likely close to death. At about the same time as Seton acquired Fyvie, his friend John Maitland, now Lord Thirlestane,  snared  title to the barony of Lethington from Marie Flemyngs son, James Maitland, on terms Marie Flemying described as "on the cheap." She was not the only one to protest. There is evidence  many Scots were outraged byThirlestane's overreaching. Thus, at the sunset of the 16th century, both Marie Flemyng’s son and her husband had lost their titles to greedy associates to whom they went for help.

None of this is particularly dynamic  when compared to the spectacle of the Queen’s petite cousin’s early life. She is best remembered as she appeared at Holyrood as Queen of the Beane in 1563 when she was compared to the Goddesses Venus, Juno and Minerva. However, the vagaries concerning her later history raises an important point.  Apparently historians of times past were at least as guilty as modern television script writers and producers in playing to an audience. On the world stage, Marian history was overlooked for decades. 

Thus, Marie Flemying died divested of her title and estates not because of anything her Machiavellian husband Maitland of Lethington did, but because she married into a dysfunctional debt-ridden family the second time around.  Nevertheless she outlived two of the other Four Maries, Livingston and Beaton, and survived her royal cousin by a decade.  She was the perfect subject for my novel.

A final word on the topic of historical accuracy in fiction:  Since I wrote The First Marie and the Queen of Scots in 2010-2011, nearly all of the sources I found in my Google searches for records of Marie Flemyng's life after Maitland died have vanished from the web. For example, there were at least four records of separate court proceedings in Aberdeen involving claims against the Fyvie holdings and the corresponding countersuits, as well as notations on official records of subpoenas and summonses issued to Hon. Marie Flemyng both before and after she became  Lady Fyvie. These are of special interest to me because she sought to have the last of them quashed due to failing health. Webpages dealing with the history of the Meldrums of Fyvie and the earlier George Meldum’s relationship with Henry VIII are also missing. My caveat to both historians and historical novelists is to look closely at those little bits of information which  pop out of Pandora’s jar, and if they seem at odds with common sense, try digging deeper and keep records of your discoveries.

I mention this with trepidation, because it appears the internet is being culled, or perhaps search engines have changed their criteria as to what should or should not be kept accessible. My own observations suggests a general dumbing down of what is presented as ‘scholarly’ while at the same time the cost of accessing a genuine research paper is rising when it should be the other way around.  I fear future researchers seeking to write a historically accurate book about the Queen of Scots will be encouraged to believe the names of the Four Maries were Greer, Kenna, Aylee and Lola, and that her Aunt Margaret murdered the King of Portugal, because these are the tidbits of misinformation most likely to survive because they get the greater number of clicks.

Cheers, and remember as the holidays approach, no one has too many books. ~ Linda Root


Linda Root is a writer of historical fiction and a former major crimes prosecutor who lives in the California high desert with her husband Chris and her two Alaskan malamutes. She also writes paranormal Scottish  fantasy under the name J.D. Root. The  First Marie and the Queen of Scots is her debut novel, published in May 2011 and in an edited second edition in 2013. Her  blog Linda Root-Indie Wrtier can be found at Books in  the Queen of Scots Suite and in the Legacy of the Queen of Scots series are on Amazon and Kindle at

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Enchantment of The Bayeux Tapestry

by Carol McGrath

The Bayeux Tapestry has retained its enchantment and its vivid colour almost a thousand years after it was embroidered. It tells the story of The Norman Conquest through beautifully framed vignettes and long-shot depictions made in embroidery from Harold Godwinson's departure on a mysterious mission to Normandy in 1064 until his death at Hastings in October 1066.  I have often wondered about the fabric and the natural dyes used for the embroidery wools in the Tapestry's construction.

Scene from The Bayeux Tapestry

Carola Hicks wrote in her wonderful book The Bayeux Tapestry, The Life Story of a Masterpiece, "Made from the workaday fabrics of linen and wool, the Tapestry has often been described as an uncharacteristically humble artifact when compared to other works of the period, even an example of quaint folk art."

It is true that the Tapestry is not sewn with valuable gold, silver, and gems, or silk embroidery threads. It is by Anglo-Saxon standards a modest work, and yet it is a glorious feat of craftsmanship and artistry. The Tapestry is constructed in the everyday fabrics of linen and wool. Even so, its fabrics were designed and executed as the result of practice by extremely talented craftsmen.

Woodland Scene from the Tapestry

Here in Tapestry the dramatic story of the Norman invasion of England is stitched out and embroidered on strips of linen. It is seventy meters in length and half a meter wide. The fact that these homely though durable fabrics, linen and wool, were used are the reason for its preservation despite its great age and fragility. Most of what we see today is original. Even where the Tapestry has been repaired we can still see the original stitch marks.


Linen and The Tapestry

Linen has a long history. The ancient Egyptians found linen's sweat-absorbent and cooling properties divine. They attributed the invention of linen to the goddess Isis. With the advent of Christianity linen was used for priestly garments. It actually had a high status. It comes from the flax plant which was sown after Easter and harvested three months later. In the Middle-Ages the young plants were pulled by hand and never cut. Cutting might damage the stems. Plant stalks were soaked till they were decomposing, dried out, then smashed with mallets to separate the outer bark from the inner fibres. These were spun into thread on a hand spindle. Medieval women spun constantly. They attached a bundle of flax fibres to the cone-shaped top of a pole , the distaff. Then the other end was tucked under the spinner's arm. A spinner drew the fibres out from the top, twisted them onto a weighted whorl, then spun them tightly into a thread.

Retting (cleaning) the flax

The Bayeux Tapestry consists of nine separate panels sewn together after they were embroidered. The two longest strips measure nearly 14 meters. This suggests a long warp or length setting. Other Tapestry sections are shorter. The original lengths were woven a meter wide and then cut to make strips that would be comfortable to embroider. A loom is used to weave the threads into lengths of fabric.  Carola Hicks thought that professional weavers made the linen on a horizontal treadle loom, a more advanced machine than an upright warp-weighted loom that was used to make woollen cloth.

Upright weaving frame

When the linen was woven it was a natural brown in colour. The linen was bleached by boiling it in a solution of water alkalized by the addition of wood ash, fern or seaweed. It was stretched out on frames for exposure to the light. It was still kept damp. After a period of three weeks or so the linen was soaked in a solution of sour milk fermented by rye or bran. The fabric was pounded with a piece of marble or glass to create a smooth silky texture.

Wool Embroidery on The Tapestry

It is considered by most Tapestry historians that there was a common cartoon source  for the Tapestry design. There is a similarity between the images, especially those of figures, emblems, plants, and animals, and those depicted on Canterbury manuscripts of the period. This suggests Canterbury as the location for the Tapestry's overall design. However, between three and eight workshops are suggested for the linen's weaving. There were probably several embroidery workshops involved as well. Likely contenders were Canterbury and Wilton.

Queen Edith, the widow of Edward the Confessor, was one of the most notable embroiderers of the era, and after her husband's death she retired to Wilton Abbey which had a school for embroiderers. She may have had a hand in the execution of the Bayeux Tapestry. It is recorded in The Vita Edwardi Regis, completed around 1066-69, a few years after Edward's death, that several people were with Edward just before his death.  There were Harold Godwin and Archbishop Stigund. Edith, one of three women depicted on the Tapestry, who warmed his feet in her lap can be seen kneeling at the bottom of his bed. According to the Vita, Edward gave a prophetic vision and then said a few words to comfort Edith. Interestingly, Edward's death scene as depicted in embroidery on the Tapestry corresponds to that described in the Vita which was commissioned by Queen Edith. Wilton Abbey is, I suggest, one of the locations for the Tapestry's construction. Queen Edith may even contributed to which scenes should be included and their depiction.
King Edward's Death Scene

The embroidery is stitched in strands of worsted wool, the end product of an old and complicated process. An enormous amount of wool was dyed. Carola Hicks states more than 45 kilograms was used for the embroidery. The original wools remain vivid. They are also more resistant to moth than chemically dyed wools. Winchester was one of the cities that monitored the practice of dyers within its jurisdiction since dyes produced noxious waste products and hideous odours. Alum which was valuable was the favoured mordant. Dye ingredients came from animal, vegetable or mineral products acquired locally. Sometimes ingredients were imported from further afield to be smashed, boiled, and simmered, concentrated to extract the essence of a hue.

There are ten main tones on the Tapestry. They came from only three plants, woad, madder and weld. The dyes were blended into two reds, a yellow and a beige, three tones of blue and three tones of green.


Beige and yellow came from the flowers and leaves of weld.

Green also came from weld but it was mixed with the leaves of woad.

Woad produced the blues.


The reds came from madder. The roots of madder were ground into a powder, heated and simmered with added chalk or lime at a constant temperature for not more than two hours. Once a whole fleece was dyed to the required colours, a hand held spindle was used to turn the fibres into bales of worsted.

A friend of mine, Charles Jones, has had spinners and embroiderers working on a tapestry to tell the story of The Battle of Fulford September 1066. Here are a few of the dying recipes he has used to reproduce authentically the colours which his embroiderers used. Be careful if you try them out.


Chop lengths to boil for one and a half hours
Add wool and pinch of tartar
simmer for one hour
one hank of woad dyed wool added to light green will produce dark yellow.


5lbs of walnuts smashed and put to soak for twenty four hours
Tap water and a half cup of vinegar

Soak the wool for two days and then simmer for half an hour will produce a nut brown shade

Oak Gall Powder

20 gm of oak gall powder
boil for 30 minutes
teaspoon of salt
alum mordanted wool added
cook for twenty minutes
fix with salt and vinegar

Produces a light green-brown

These are just a few of the recipes used for dying wool used in embroidering a latter-day tapestry replica. I wonder if EHFA readers have had experience of creating dyes for wool using similar methods.


Carol McGrath is the author of The Handfasted Wife (2013) published by Accent Press and inspired by The Bayeux Tapestry.

The Swan-Daughter published by Accent Press (2014) is available now from and from

Monday, November 17, 2014

Researching Historical Fiction via Interviews

By Deborah Swift

Most of last year I was working on 'Past Encounters', a novel set in 1945 and ten years later in 1955. This meant the period is on the border of slipping into memory and on the border of historical fiction as a genre. As such it meant I was able to interview people who had first hand memories of the times, although those people were often housebound or elderly.

My novel is set during the filming of Brief Encounter, the classic Engish film, which features a railway station as one of its main locations. Quite a few people who worked in and around the station were drafted in as extras for the film, and it was these people I wanted to trace and interview in order to construct a fictional lead character who might have been an extra during the filming.

Here are my tips for interviewing.

Be polite, because the person is giving up their time to help you, so offer to buy them a coffee, or if you are meeting them at home, bring a small gift of cake or biscuits or a copy of one of your other books as a gesture of thanks. Make a note of their full name and how it is spelled as you may later want to credit them, and as the interview gets going you might get too excited to ask!

Have a list of very specific questions. The first time I did an interview, I found my interviewee had so many memories that before I knew it she had begun to tell me an anecdote that happened to her father in 1971, which was interesting and took about twenty minutes in the telling, but was of course completely useless to me as material for my book.

Which reminds me, allow lots and lots of time. This is because you want the interview to progress naturally, like a conversation; otherwise it might feel like an interrogation. So although you have particular questions, you might need to steer the conversation gently that way, and the more relaxed your interviewee is, the more likely it is that they will give you the nuggets of memory which really bring the story alive. I talked to one lady whose description of when her fiancee did not come back from the war meant we both had to have the box of tissues!

I took some of my other research along, eg newspapers from 1945 and books about WWII with good photographs, and this gave a natural start to the conversation whilst we looked at the pictures together. Sometimes it was a cue for their photo album to come out, and those were great insightful conversations. Expect to drink vast quantities of tea and coffee and eat lots of biscuits and cake.

The people I interviewed were fascinated by my process as a writer, and on occasions it felt more like I was the interviewee. They will want to know when to expect your book to come out, and when they can buy it. These can be difficult questions to answer when you haven't even written the book yet. After a few months you will begin to get phone calls asking how you are getting on. (Of course by then it is still just a disastrous soup in your head, but you reassure them nevertheless.)

So one of the things to remember is that once you have interviewed someone, you then have a relationship with that person, and you can't just drop them when you have got the information you need. Expect to make lots of new friends, and particularly with older people be prepared to go back and chat with them again about how things are going with the book. I was continually humbled by what I learnt about life for my grandparent's generation.

Offer a copy of the novel when it is ready. You will probably have to do a lot of apologizing because 'their bit' is not in it, having been cut when you realized the whole thing was much too long and you couldn't include everything!

I brought out the book under the pseudonym Davina Blake because it is a much more modern book than my other historicals and a different kind of read. In the same vein as the film 'Brief Encounter', there is plenty of relationship drama but no big frocks or swashbuckling in this one! As a writer it was refreshing to have a different research process and a different period to work in. 'Past Encounters' will probably appeal to a different reader, though I hope some of the people who enjoyed my other books do give it a try.

Amazon UK

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Giveaway: Agnes Sorel: Mistress of Beauty by HRH Princess Michael of Kent

Her Highness is giving away a copy of Agnes Sorel: Mistress of Beauty to a US winner. Please comment below to enter the drawing. Be sure to leave your contact information.

You can read about the book HERE.